Professional Hockey Comes to Buffalo!

The Buffalo Majors play inside Buffalo city limits

Written by Tim Warchocki

Buffalo Amusement Company mogul Lawrence F. Welch was one of Buffalo’s most ambitious and colorful professional and amateur sports executives. It was at his instigation that the American Hockey Association, who already had six established franchises, include a seventh – within the City of Buffalo (unlike the cross-town rival Buffalo Bisons, who called Ft. Erie home.) Even though it meant long and costly travel for its clubs, the league saw Buffalo’s potential and allowed the club to join its existing group which included Tulsa, Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Duluth, and St. Louis. The AHA was considered a “renegade league” by the National Hockey League and other professional circuits because their brand of hockey featured exaggerated roughness and an aggressive style that fans in those cities had grown to enjoy.

Buffalo’s inaugural season started after much difficulty and delay. The Buffalo club was scheduled to start in Chicago on December 2, 1930 but was forced to delay more than one game. The club had a full squad of players under contract, but an immigration snafu prohibited them from being allowed over the border from Canada. Team President Lawrence F. Welch, not only had his hands full with that, but the teams’ scheduled home opener, which was set for a couple weeks later on December 13, was also pushed back because over $125,000 of construction on a new artificial ice rink at the old Broadway Auditorium, which had only begun a couple weeks prior, was at a standstill due to economic complications. Financial backers at the last minute had pulled-out of the ownership group, leaving Welch on tap for the entire cost. It was not known at season’s start, when work would resume either.

AHA President William F. Grant began to have reservations that the League’s decision to grant Buffalo a franchise was a sound one. He was doubtful that they would be able to compete on a nightly basis. Grant was also acutely aware that the delay would inevitably cause problems down the road because any revised league schedule would call for Buffalo to play a number of those missed home games toward the end of the season in March. This was not possible due to conflicts with the American Bowling Congress, who had a prior claim on the hall for it’s A, B, and C five-man tournaments. The ABC was backed by top Buffalo politicians who also competed in the tournament. So modifying the schedule was completely out of the question. The ice-covered floor would have to be completely converted into wooden bowling alleys. The Majors would simply have to vacate their home. An active and aggressive business man however, Larry Welch was not the type of person who was easily discouraged. He was convinced that his players were in shape, and the delay would not discourage his franchise from competitive play. Smooth-talking Welch’s positive attitude and hard work eventually paid off and by Christmas, fresh capitalist backers were found and persuaded to invest money to complete the Broadway Auditorium project and secure a home for the franchise. William Grant remained skeptical.

joe starkeThe hometown team’s coach and manager for that season was George P. Sears. A 25-year veteran bench boss, Sears was highly respected in hockey circles and immediately gave the team credibility. Sears would need to call upon every drop of that quarter-century of experience too because his job was to build a competitive hockey club despite the cards being dealt to him by Larry Welch. The Buffalo club was hastily scrambled together a mere few weeks before the scheduled start of the season. There was little time for scrimmages or practice sessions and the border delay didn’t help the players’ spirits either. However, under Sears’ expert leadership the rough and ready squad proved resolute and showed plenty of spunk during their first game on Monday, December 8 1930, a 3-2 loss on the road versus the Tulsa Oilers. Buffalo’s starting lineup featured goalie Joe Starke, Eddie Oatman and Ralph Rennie on defense, Reggie Mills at center with Clark Heyd and Bill Cousins (on loan from the Chicago Shamrocks) on wing. The game came down to the wire. Reggie Mills had scored the game-tying goal during the final second of the game, but had it disallowed because the referee held that the final buzzer had sounded before the puck crossed the threshold. For the record however, Reggie Mills was credited for the first Buffalo tally in team history at 5:23 of the third period.

interior of the broadway auditoriumBy the end of January Lawrence Welch had to publically announce what the league knew all along, that the American Bowling Congress had the rights to use the Broadway Auditorium at the end of February. The team would be forced to move, only a month after it was able to drop a puck on the ice. Welch said that he was looking to play out the regular season either on the road, the way it had began, or at the Buffalo Bisons’ home, the Peace Bridge Arena. The news loomed over the team’s home opener like a dark shadow on Sunday January 25, 1931 versus the Duluth Hornets. The game marked the Buffalo Amusement company’s gallant season-long battle against terrific odds to place a team on artificial ice within Buffalo city limits. Unexpected and unavoidable delays plagued the organization time-after-time which postponed the inaugural game nearly two months into the season. But this was the Buffalo’s Broadway Auditorium’s time to shine. The arena boasted having the American Hockey Association’s largest rink at 86’ x 185’. A capacity crowd of 7500 were in attendance to witness Buffalo Mayor Charles E. Roesch drop the ceremonial first puck at center ice at 8:30pm.

ed oatmanBuffalo’s starting lineup for the home opener was team Captain Eddie Oatman, Ralph Rennie, Joe Thorsteinson, Eddie Bouchard and Speedy Desy. The Hornets fell to Buffalo 3-2 in overtime in dramatic fashion. The Majors spotted Duluth a two goal lead, but eventually found their legs in the third period which culminated in Speedy Desy’s game-tying goal with 1:25 remaining. The only blemish on the night unfortunately also belonged to the star attraction – the ice. By the end of the game, the newly-formed ice had softened and puddles had formed in many areas to a point that it was difficult to play. Despite the difficulties, game officials decided to continue. Both teams played tough in overtime, but it was sturdy forward Eddie Bouchard who staged the winning rush and scored the game winner at 6:52 of the overtime period. With three straight victories the Buffalo Majors managed to claw themselves out of the hole they had dug early in the season into a tie for fifth place with a respectable 10-10-1 record.

buffalo bisons jerseyA few weeks later it was announced that the final hockey game played at Buffalo’s Broadway Auditorium would be against the Minneapolis Millers on Sunday, February 8 1931. The Majors had not lost a game on their ice in all five home games played at the Auditorium. They were anxious to log at least one positive entry in their seemingly endless season of horrors. The team played their hearts out and secured a place in Buffalo’s sports trivia history with a 2-2 tie versus the Millers. The 1930-31 Buffalo Majors were undefeated at home (within Buffalo City limits.) The ever savvy Lawrence Welch managed to negotiate a deal with Lee Jones, manager of the Peace Bridge Arena in Fort Erie to play the Majors’ remaining 12 games on their ice. The Arena was the home of the other Buffalo hockey club, the Bisons of the International Hockey League.

moose goheenAlthough nobody knew it, the Buffalo Majors had a future United States Hockey Hall-of-Famer in their midst. Left Winger, Francis “Moose” Goheen only played 2 games with the Buffalo squad and was at the end of a tremendous playing career. He was considered at the time to be the greatest hockey player ever produced by the state of Minnesota and recognized for his accomplishments. He was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1952 and became a charter member of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973.

The American Hockey Association trade deadline was set for midnight on February 13, 1931. President Welch, not satisfied with his teams’ standing, wanted to make a push for the third and final seat in the playoffs. Welch also had visions of promoting an Intra-city exhibition title series that showcased both Buffalo hockey franchises. The catch being that both teams had to make the playoffs. The Majors had managed to escape their early reputation as a down-and-out team and were looked at as serious contenders by other teams in the league. As a result, negotiations for other players became exceedingly difficult in the days leading up to the deadline. Welch coveted Tip O’Neil and Billy DePaul from the Minneapolis Millers who occupied the bottom of the League standings, but the team wanted to much for both players. Welch instead settled for “Gloomy” Lessard from the Millers, Johnny Mitchell from Duluth, and Bill Cousins from the St. Louis Flyers. Cousins was with the team at the start of the campaign on loan from Chicago, but was transferred to St. Louis after only a couple games.

Buffalo, Chicago, Kansas City, and Duluth remained in a fight for the third and final playoff spot in the league until the final game of the season. The high-powered Tulsa Oilers remained in first place nearly all season while both Minneapolis and St. Louis occupied the basement since Christmas. The Majors’ season boiled down to a final two-game series with the Duluth Hornets. Buffalo needed to win both games in order to clinch the last playoff seed, Duluth needed to win two of its final four games. Buffalo won the first game in smart fashion 5-0, but lost the final game. They were mathematically still in the race, but had to await the outcome of Duluth’s final series against the hapless Millers. The Hornets devastated the Minneapolis club in their final series and won both games which mathematically eliminated the Majors from post-season play. Despite going an impressive 9-3 in their final 12 games of the season, the Majors missed the playoffs which ended any hopes of an amazing Cinderella season, and Intra-League Championship matchup between both Buffalo teams.

Rumors swirled around the League of the Majors’ demise the following season. In answer to the allegations Lawrence Welch proclaimed in a letter to the press “Professional hockey is here to stay in Buffalo!” He went on to say the Broadway Auditorium was only occupied by the team seven games but receipts totaled in excess of $20,000. Spread over an entire season, the team would have succeeded financially. The Majors were given a cash infusion of $86,000 in January that kept the team afloat. But the deal he struck with Peace Bridge Arena officials in order to play their remaining home games there cost them $1166.60 each night, coupled with the high-cost of travel, and the day-to-day cost of operating a hockey team nearly bankrupt the organization. The ever-optimistic Welch said “The men who put their money into a project that at its best was trying to give Buffalo a place of prominence in the field of sport are going to carry on. We want to give the people of Buffalo the exciting game of hockey. They are entitled to it and Buffalo is a fitting place for the game.” He managed to secure enough financing for the start of another season, but in doing so, opened up a rift that would eventually consume the franchise.

The following season, the Majors were able to secure their Broadway Auditorium home once again. This time, no financial entanglements hindered their home opener. The Millers of Minneapolis were disbanded and only six teams remained from last season. Manager George Sears departed following the end of last season. Former Stanley Cup Champion Quebec Bulldogs’ standout Eddie Oatman, and Majors’ defenseman was promoted to coach. The Majors started the 1931-32 campaign on November 15 1931. Billy Holmes and Billy DePaul were newcomers to the squad. Buffalo lost their season opener to the Chicago Shamrocks 3-1, and proceeded to lose 6 more out of 9 games. Team President Lawrence Welch decided to try and shake things up a bit with the release of Clark Heyd, a top performer last year who wasn’t pulling his weight.

By Christmas, the wheels were completely falling off the Majors’ wagon. The team languished in the cellar, and fan interest was at an all-time low. Popular defenseman Ponzi Contant and Alf Ferguson were released in an effort to inspire better play. Coach Oatman replaced Contant on the blue line. A few games later Welch acquired center Larry Goyer from the St. Louis Flyers for Billy DePaul. 19 year-old Paul Armand and George Redding were also acquired. The shake-ups had no effect and the team continued to spiral downward. By the start of the New Year, Welch had seen enough and fired Eddie Oatman as coach and replaced him with John “Nip” Dwan. Dwan was a former coach of the National Hockey League New York Americans – who was working the Broadway Auditorium games as a referee. Oatman took the demotion in stride and as a result his services were retained with the team but as a defenseman only. Dwan released team Captain Billy Holmes and replaced him with Bert Clayton between Speedy Desy and Billy “The Kid” DePaul. The changes helped somewhat as the rejuvenated Majors went 4-3-1 over the next 8 games.

The Great Depression was now in full-swing. Teams began feeling the pinch in their pocketbooks. The American Hockey Association 1931 Champion Tulsa Oilers had to consider the suspension of their scheduled eastern road trips due to financial difficulties. There was also discussion that the team would have to transfer to St. Paul Minnesota, where there would be better support. The news didn’t fare better in Western New York either. Following a western road swing on Saturday, January 30, 1932, members of the Majors learned that the American Hockey Association had decided to disband their team and drop them from the circuit due to financial reasons. League President William Grant, a pragmatic businessman that still had his doubts about the Majors dating back to the start of their first season, grew exceedingly impatient with the franchise and declared the reason was directly the result of the clubs’ persistent financial difficulties. The Majors had fallen behind on payments to the league, and its players were owed back pay. The straw that broke the came’s back was the team’s lack of success on the ice, which resulted in fan apathy and loss of income. People just didn’t have the money to go to an inferior hockey game, especially during those hard times. Larry Welch also pointed to the high-cost of travel and other expenses as a contributing factor to the team’s difficulties. All of the Buffalo players with the exception of Leo Carbol and Paul Armand, who were on load from the Chicago Shamrocks, were free agents and available to any team. If no team picked them up, sadly they were out of luck and had to find work in the common labor force, the same as anyone else. Efforts to raise money to revive the Majors club fell short as Larry Welch had lost the desire to lead the initiative. The result was the Buffalo Majors were officially pronounced dead on Tuesday, February 2 1932. Professional hockey would not return to the City of Buffalo until 1940.